Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water Review: A Photo Finish (Switch)

Have you ever wanted to explore the most haunted and deadly mountain in Japan? Grab your camera and pack your swimsuit, it's time to discover the horrible secrets of Mt. Hikami! Just be mindful of the locals - they may want you to stay forever.

Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water Review: A Photo Finish (Switch)

The PlayStation 2 era is one that is fondly remembered by Survival Horror buffs who were around for it. Already established franchises like Resident Evil and Silent Hill were on their second and fourth iterations respectively. It was around this time that the original Fatal Frame was released, widely considered one of the most terrifying games on the platform. While Fatal Frame may not have achieved as much mainstream success as its contemporaries, it still managed to spawn a few sequels and spinoffs along the way.

Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water is the fifth mainline title in the series. To its untimely demise, it was originally released as a Wii U exclusive back in 2016 and for this reason flew under many a fan’s radar.

Thankfully, in 2021, developer and publisher Koei Tecmo has remastered this title, which is now available for Nintendo Switch, Xbox, Playstation and Steam at your regional pricing. 

Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water - Announcement Trailer - Nintendo Switch | E3 2021

Story – Moving Mountains

Maiden of Black Water doesn’t pull any punches in the beginning, dropping you straight into a shrine and surrounding you with creepy ghosts with little explanation right at the get go.

After this short introductory experience that sets the tone quite nicely, you will be introduced to Yuri – one of the 3 playable characters. This happens to be her first outing to Mount Hikami, on a mission with Hisoka to recover a photo album for another playable character by the name of Ren.

The third and final playable character, Miu, is part of the established continuity as she is the daughter of Miku Hinasaki, the protagonist in the original Fatal Frame. Fans of the series will likely resonate the most with her. There is also a handful of other supporting characters with varying depths of personality.

She's not afraid, that's just her face

She’s not afraid, that’s just her face

The game is built around Mount Hikami, a dreadful place steeped in folklore and superstition. The dark, oppressive themes and folklore surrounding the mountain are fascinating to uncover. 

Driven Characters

Hikami’s history spans centuries, if not millennia. It is considered to be a place where the land of the living and dead meet, inexplicably attracting the weak-willed to climb it. Going to the mountain after sunset is considered a death sentence. All these beliefs have been held since ancient times, but this did not stop the local government at one stage from trying to develop the resource-rich mountain by building new roads.

Don't look now, Yuri

Don’t look now, Yuri

This attempt ultimately ended in tragedy, and interest was abandoned leaving the brooding mountain to be spoken of only in whispers, attracting only those with a death wish. The characters ultimately feels like a vehicle to tell that of the mountain. By hook or by crook they are drawn to this place so it can tell its story. A place so heavily steeped in folklore and superstition truly captivates one’s morbid curiosity.

Gameplay – Ghoulishly Good

The gameplay will feel familiar to lovers of the genre. This is a 3rd-person story-driven survival game of textbook execution. That said, Maiden of Black Water delivers some exciting and unique twists to the usual.

Even reaching for items is suspenseful

Even reaching for items is suspenseful

The movement of the character was somewhat problematic. One can either walk at a slow and deliberate pace, or take a more brisk jog by holding the ZL trigger. The camera can be unwieldy at times, especially when you need to about face in a fight. That said, this game is far from unplayable and these minor gripes can be considered a throwback to old-school PlayStation 2 era survival-horror. Being honest, the controls were far worse back then.

Exploring Hikami’s twisting, overgrown pathways is as satisfying as it is nerve-wrecking. You never know what grisly secrets may lie around the next corner.

Phantom Filmography

The main attraction in the Fatal Frame series is the Camera Obscura. This is a special device that can almost inexplicably see beyond the veil, and to boot allows the wielder to defend themselves from malevolent spirits.

Fatally Frameworthy

Fatally Frameworthy

At the tap of the button, your character will look through the viewfinder. In this mode, you can select different films of varying potency. You can also choose different lenses that will aid you in battles, with different effects like absorbing health or stunning your ghostly foes. Fighting ghosts involves snapping pictures while in camera mode. Each picture you take will cause the ghost to degenerate, and you will see fragments of the ghost floating around.

These fragments, if photographed, will be absorbed by the Camera Obscura. If you miss them, the ghost will reabsorb them. Getting 5 or more fragments into your frame will trigger Shutter Chance, knocking back the ghost and dealing extra damage.

Nice photobomb

Nice photobomb

The titular Fatal Frame will occur when you catch the ghost mid attack, dealing massive damage and knocking the ghost back even further. These are difficult, yet rewarding to achieve.

Slippery When Wet

The Wetness mechanic is one unique to this game, which makes you more vulnerable to ghostly attacks and also more likely to encounter vengeful spirits. Your character’s wetness is indicated by a water bloom gauge in the bottom right corner, which will begin to flower as your character becomes more waterlogged. Water gives life, but in this game it will surely lead you to your death. 

Water is an almost constant hazard

Water is an almost constant hazard

At its peak, the wetness meter turns red and starts damaging the character over time. Fortunately this can be dealt with by using purifying embers; however these may be in short supply at higher difficulty levels. Scores are tallied at the end of each chapter, or “Drop”. These can be used to purchase items or upgrade your camera. There are also costumes and accessories available for each character. I personally appreciate the arcade feel this lends to the game. The brief respite between chapters also gives you time to collect your wits.

Level design seems to have been given a high priority. Exploring Hikami often felt foreboding and claustrophobic. Each step you take feels like a gamble. There are blind corners and winding pathways aplenty, all filled with gruesome secrets to uncover. The level design is phenomenal and has great continuity throughout.

Ghostly traces lead you to your objective

Ghostly traces lead you to your objective

Exploring Hikami’s twisting and overgrown pathways is as satisfying as it is nerve-wrecking. You never know what grisly secrets await around the next corner.

Graphics and Audio – Her Ghost In The Fog

Visually, Maiden of the Black Water is a treat. The environments, characters and enemies are all designed with nuance and flair befitting a well-respected if lesser known series such as this. The movement animations of the characters do leave something to be desired. While they are far from the worst I have seen, they can at times feel robotic and unnatural. This is compounded by the unwieldy camera I mentioned earlier.

Show those pearly whites

Show those pearly whites

The found footage-style flashbacks are also a nice touch and fit very well with the overall atmosphere and style of the game. The janky old home video effect invokes movies like The Ring.

The voice acting, at least in the English dub, is somewhat hollow and uninspiring. The lines are delivered in a flat and unemotional fashion. This is one area the developer seems to have overlooked when remastering this game. Other areas of the sound design are much more well-wrought. The soundtrack is filled with rainy, dissonant and scary sounds. Lonely, haunting chimes and effects make for a wholly suspenseful and anxiety-inducing experience unlike any other.

Fatal Frame: Maiden of the Black Water was reviewed on Nintendo Switch. The review key was provided by Koei Tecmo.

Maiden of the Black Water is a game that I would recommend to any fan of the genre. While the awkward controls and deadpan voice acting may detract from the experience, the world building and design are second to none.
  • Phenomenal world building
  • Excellent level design
  • Scary ghosts
  • Uninspired voice acting
  • Clumsy controls

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